As Oilers defence prospect Ethan Bear continues to charge his Seattle Thunderbirds from the backend, he continues to electrify the pulse of the Oilers and their fan base.
The 19-year-old is surging, putting together another impressive season in the Western Hockey League. Bear has 25 goals and 62 points in 58 games. He's on pace to eclipse his point total from last season and has already exceeded his career high in goals. He had 19 last year and could be the first WHL defenceman to score 30 in a season since 2010-11 when Stefan Elliott of the Saskatoon Blades tucked 31 in 71 matches.
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Bear's struck thunder ever since the ball dropped on 2017. The blueliner has 32 points in 23 games in the new year and is currently riding a nine-game point streak. In those nine games, Bear has seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points and his T-birds are 7-2-0-0 despite being down a few key players due to injuries.
"I think it's just not focusing on it that much," Bear said of the secret to his recent success. "Not focusing on goals or not trying to do too much offensively, it's just playing it simple and just playing hockey."
Just "playing hockey" seems to get lost in today's game. With so much dedication to the intricacies surrounding high-level performance, including extra time in the gym, video sessions, skills coaching and practices, then the pressures that come with playing, it appears there's never room to simply enjoy hockey stress-free.
Bear's mindset is the cause.
"I don't go into a game thinking I've got to get two goals tonight or I've got to get two assists, I'm just thinking about taking care of my own end first and then when I can help out offensively, I do my part, too," he said.
Bear was named the WHL Player of the Week for the second time in his major junior career on Monday. The 5-foot-11 rearguard had four goals and six assists in five games, helping his team to a 3-2-0-0 record.
"I worked really hard and did the best to help my team win, so to get a little bit of notice for it feels good," said Bear. "Not everybody gets to be the WHL Player of the Week so it's a good feeling and my parents are pretty proud of me so it's good."
The Thunderbirds played their U.S. Division rival Portland Winterhawks twice during that span. It was another opportunity for Bear to compete against his friend and fellow Oilers defence prospect Caleb Jones. Bear had a four-point night in one of the games, then added an assist in the other. Jones had three points in the series and one end-to-end shorthanded highlight-reel goal, but Bear's Thunderbirds skated away with four points.
The competitive edge between the two seems to bring out the best in them.
"We noticed that; it's pretty fun," said Bear. "Makes us compete a little harder."
The Oilers management team even mentions the two in the same breath.
"Probably the two most impressive kids that I've seen are Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones," said Oilers Vice President of Player Personnel Duane Sutter. "Just the games that I've watched them play this year, they've both been very good… And they're both signed players so they're both going to turn pro next year."
The four-point night by Bear may have been the final argument for his case as player of the week. The offensive output for him is clear. No expectations, no added stress. Just play. Hockey in its elementary form: 10 skaters, two teams, one puck.
"There's no pressure from yourself," he said. "If I don't get a point that night, I'm not mad. It's O.K. I just do what I can to help out the team and the main thing I have to do is shoot the puck. That's what the coach has been stressing."
Bear's shot is the other reason for his improved scoring touch. The righty has a lightning-quick release and aims to land it wherever he sees open netting. Bear and his defence partner Turner Ottenbreit work on their shooting after practice whenever they can.
"We usually shoot some pucks and work on just a quick release from the point and getting as much power as we can into the shot," said Bear. "It's something I take pride in and one of my specialties."
The swift release could help him net five more goals this season to reach that elusive number 30. Once again, though, Bear isn't anticipating it.
"It would be a cool accomplishment but right now there's a lot of games left and it's not going to be my focus point," he said. "If I get it, it's going to feel good but right now we still have a lot of games left and a lot of teams are really tightening up here so you got to play d-zone first."
As the WHL regular season draws closer to a conclusion, it's becoming more apparent the Thunderbirds could very well reach the heights they did last season when they made it all the way to the WHL Final. They've been playing lights-out despite all the injuries plaguing them, so having that extra bolt of offence will only help once they're healthy.
"I think we have a pretty deep team and it's not just going to come down to me," Bear said. "It's going to come down to everyone else buying into the playoffs."